How to perform a reference check to find the perfect candidate


When seeking out the ideal candidate, there are a few important steps to ensure that you find the best fit for the role you’re trying to fill.

A reference check is a great way to find out more about the people you’ve decided to hire. Take it more than a formality, as it gives you a better idea of your candidate’s character, skills and employment history.

You are also given a list of 6 great questions to ask when performing a reference check.

We have added Teamdash‘s reference check guidelines that we follow when hiring a new team member.

What is a reference check?

A reference check is used by hiring managers or recruitment teams to get to know prospective job candidates better.

A reference check is usually performed towards the end of the hiring process to gather more information about the person a company wishes to hire from their previous employer, school, etc. The check is done to help hiring teams verify that the candidate is who they say they are, and how they performed in their last position.

Usually, the candidate provides a list of references who you can contact. These people know that they will be contacted and are willing to share more information about the candidate. If the candidate hasn’t provided a list, ask for one.

What are the benefits of performing a reference check?

Not all hiring managers perform reference checks, but there are many reasons why they are important – especially if the role is particularly competitive or high-level. Even though often right, you can’t base the decision on gut feeling.

Some benefits of performing a reference check include:

  • Verify the candidate’s employment history: Up until this point in the recruitment process, all the information you have received has come from the candidate themselves. A reference check allows you to follow up on the candidate’s previous employment and job titles. And confirm that they have the correct experience and qualifications for the role.
  • Check their work performance: A reference check can help you get an idea of how your candidate performs under pressure or with other teams. You can find out various positive and negative traits from the reference check: Are they slow workers? Are they self-starters? Do they lean heavily on other people? Are they good with contributing ideas? Do they take lots of time off? Are they good with time management?
  • Get an idea of their character: You can get an idea of your candidate’s personality and character by asking the people who have spent time around them – perhaps in both a professional and personal setting. They will also be able to confirm if your candidate is a good character fit for the organisation.
  • Avoid making a mistake: Reference checks can help you decide between two excellent candidates but can also help you avoid making a bad decision. They also help you quickly identify any red flags that might have not come to the surface during the hiring process or on paper.

When should you perform a reference check?

It’s best practice to perform a reference check towards the end of the hiring process, or in the step before presenting the candidate with an employment offer.

Having said this, reference checks can be done to help you decide between two top candidates, or can be done as early as after the first interview if time and resources allow.

How should you perform a reference check?

You can perform a reference check either by phone or by email, and there are pros and cons to both. Usually, a candidate will list one or two references on their CV, but you can ask them directly if they have not provided any contact details.

The fastest way to perform a reference check is by making a phone call and talking to the former employer directly. This is arguably the best way to perform a reference check as the conversation will be a lot more organic, friendly, and efficient.

However it is also possible to perform a reference check via email, but you might not get as good of a sense of the candidate as you would through a more conversational phone call. It might also take a few days to get a reply. However, an email reference check does allow you to ask more direct, pointed questions.

What questions should and shouldn’t be asked during a reference check?

For legal reasons, it’s very important that any questions you ask are related to the role and not about the candidate’s personal life, age, sexual orientation, race, habits or relationships. It’s also important that you do not inquire about a candidate’s plans to start a family.

You want to find out the most about the candidate’s ability to do the job they are applying for without any discrimination or bias.

A good idea is to ask questions based on the comments on the candidate card in your ATS. You can address the concerns and ask for clarifications.

Ask a series of specific open-ended questions, listen to their responses without disturbing them, and don’t supply them with answers yourself.

6 great questions to ask during a reference check (and why)

Question 1: When did the candidate work for your company?
Question 2: What was your relationship to the candidate?

These two questions are designed to get to know the relationship the individual had with your candidate and whether the information they provided on their CV and in their interview(s) correlates with what you already know.

Question 3: What did you like about working with the candidate?

This gives the person you are speaking with the chance to praise the candidate, highlighting all the things they liked about working with them.

Question 4: Would you describe the candidate as a reliable worker? Why?

Regardless of the position, reliability is a very important skill when it comes to working as part of a team. It is great if the employer can give examples of times the candidate was dependable. E.g. always being on time, meeting deadlines or going above and beyond.

Question 5: What would you say are their greatest strengths and weaknesses?

This question allows you to find out if there is anything you should be aware of when hiring the candidate. You are able to get a better idea of the candidate’s strengths and can weigh them against their weaknesses to see if you are taking a gamble or if these are areas for the individual’s personal growth.

Question 6: If you could, would you rehire this person?

This is a great question to ask because it gives you a clear black-and-white answer. Both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer encouraged further elaboration, telling you everything you need to know.

Reference check guidelines

We have written down some guidelines for performing a reference check which portrays our company culture:

Who should be the referrer?

  • Superior or direct manager
  • A team member who the candidate worked together directly

The reference call script should always include an introduction:

  • Who are you (i.e. your name and title)?
  • What company are you calling from and why you are calling?

For example, you are calling because the person is one of the final two candidates for the full-stack engineer position, and you wish to get more information about the candidate’s previous job experience/skills/project and role in the company. Reference check questions that have worked well for Teamdash:

  • How long did you work together?
  • What does the company do and what were your roles?
  • What were the candidate’s responsibilities?
  • What was the purpose of their role?
  • Did they work individually or in a team?
  • How would you describe the candidate?
  • What would you say were the candidate’s strengths?
  • What kind of tasks were not a good fit for the candidate? Or which tasks wouldn’t be a good fit?
  • Were there any conflicts or disagreements during your time working together? How did the candidate resolve those conflicts?
  • What do you think motivates the candidate and what doesn’t?
  • Would you hire the candidate back to your team if you had the choice? Why?

The answer to the last question usually gives the best indication about the candidate’s fit and the referrer’s opinion about the candidate.

+ Questions about skills and competencies that are applicable only to the specific roles.

Teamdash – The all-in-one recruitment software

Streamline your recruitment process, save up to 70% of your time and hire top talent fast.

Book a demo

Marie Evart

Co-founder & Community Manager

Read about author
Next up

LinkedIn Recruitment: How to recruit on LinkedIn

Read more